Abbeville’s Victorian Upcountry

Iconic Communities, On the Road, Travel Destinations
on August 24, 2003

Talk about love at first sight. Gwen Jensen knew she wanted to put down roots in Abbeville, S.C., within minutes of her first visit. When pressed for a reason, she talks a lot about “gut” and “intuition,” but also mentions tangibles: clean environment, friendly people, small population (5,840), a thriving town square, and historic architecture.

“It reminded us of Pleasantville,” Jensen says with a laugh, referring to the 1998 feature film about an idealized city. It’s no wonder. Abbeville has a well-preserved National Register Historic District encompassing more than 300 structures, leading many to describe the town as the “essence of Victorian Upcountry.” Located in the upper part of the state, it’s where Charlestonians come to cool off in the summer and where out-of-state travelers experience a level of history and culture unusual in a town this size. For Jensen, who moved to Abbeville with her family three years ago from rural Michigan, it also makes for a nice place to live.

She was also charmed to discover many local businesses still observe an old tradition of closing at noon on Wednesdays—to balance a five-day workweek that includes Saturdays—and that court is held only one week a month.

“So if the square is full, you know it must be court week,” she says.

It’s either that, or opening night of the town’s latest theatrical production. The crowned jewel among Abbeville’s well-known architecture, the Opera House in 2001 was designated the state’s official rural drama theatre. Built in 1908, the four-story, Broadway-style structure hosted every major road company out of New York during the 1920s and ’30s, including the Ziegfeld Follies.

In the ’40s, with the increasing popularity of “talking pictures,” the theatre was converted into a cinema and operated as such until the building was closed in 1958. Ten years later, the community restored the theatre to its original grandeur.

After a decade of successful community theatre, local leaders contracted a professional touring company to perform in the summers. The owner of that company was soon persuaded to work year-round, orchestrating a full professional summer season, plus five winter productions.

“Abbeville is just a wonderful place to raise a family,” says company director Michael Genevie, who also appears in movies and commercials. “Who would’ve thought you could have a theatre career here, too?”

The shows usually sell out, and often feature wholesome family tales such as Life With Father and It’s a Wonderful Life. The auditorium seats 325 and attracts 20,000 annually, providing the town with both a cultural centerpiece and an economic stimulus.

As for Civil War history, Abbeville has its share. One well-documented story recounts how Confederate President Jefferson Davis held his last war council in the 1841 Burt-Stark Mansion. And because an influential secession meeting was held in Abbeville at the beginning of the movement, the town was dubbed the “Birthplace and Deathbed of the Confederacy.”

For Gene Loos, a local business owner who moved here 20 years ago from New York, those centuries-old stories make Abbeville an ideal hometown. “If you’re into history, this is the town to come to.”